Why Pakistani serials trump ours...

BY VIKRAM JOHRI| IN Media Practice | 09/12/2014
At last, serials with real characters, good acting, compelling storylines, and an understated tone.
Watching Pakistani serials on ‘Zindagi’ has got VIKRAM JOHRI purring with pleasure (Pix: Mahira Khan and Fawad Khan in Humsafar).
In what must have been, even if this is a cliché, a simpler age, Doordarshan used to run 13-episide shows that, while technically less sophisticated than today’s programming, were so well-done as to make one wonder if the presence of competition has perhaps done more ill than good for the national broadcaster. 

One such show that ran in the early 1990s was Kshitij yeh nahin, about a young widow who, with the support of her father-in-law, takes a fresh leap into love and life. Supriya Pilgaonkar and Vikram Gokhale played the leads in what was a subtly crafted evocation of women’s rights.

Contrast with today, when the angst that viewers feel at the quality of content dished out on Indian TV can be summarised by the reactions to the end of Pavitra Rishta, Zee's money-spinning primetime soap that ran for five interminable years before wrapping up in October. Faking News, always on the money about things that rile, ran a story headlined: "Ekta Kapoor’s Pavitra Rishta is over, PM announces Rs. 5,000 cr relief for those affected."

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find the same Zee network work the charm with Zindagi, its lineup of serials from Pakistan. No more were women screeching their way to the kitchen, no more were men just props reduced to a fate worse than furniture, and no more was the dropping of a single glass enough to carry an entire episode. The storylines were mature, the music understated, and the acting superior. Why, I even stopped shutting my door when folks at home watched TV.

So this too is Pakistan, we gasped. Women who don’t cover their heads at all times, rather work in glitzy offices. Love affairs happen and nobody gets murdered or stoned on that account. Not everyone there has a gun tucked under the bed. Really? More than the good television, it was a lesson in how people - and normal people at that - live in the neighbouring country. 

In Humsafar, which has become a blockbuster of sorts due to the effortless charm of its main lead, Fawad Khan, a couple battle shenanigans engendered by the mother-in-law. 

The tone, however, is one of wistfulness for a simpler past. Indeed, some of the tropes that we witness are strikingly similar to the factors that engender discord on Indian shows. The woman suffers in silence, while a femme fatale, ably aided by the sinister mother-in-law, hatches designs on the husband. 

But at no point does the show force things down the viewer’s throat. There is a quietness to the proceedings, reminiscent of not just Doordarshan’s prelapsarian goodness, but even Zee’s own early lineup. One of its first successful shows after Zee became the first private channel to beam into our homes was Sailaab, about a director who begins an extramarital affair with his former paramour. The tempered tone of that show, helmed by stalwarts like Renuka Shahane and Sachin Khedekar, is best captured by its title track, a soulful ghazal by Jagjit Singh.

Back to Zindagi. In Ishq Gumshuda, the dynamics of a group of friends alters after one of them proposes love to another. Ali loves Alizeh, who perhaps loves him back but does not know it yet. She convinces him to marry another common friend, but later realizes her folly. Meanwhile, she grows close to an elderly man who himself was a friend of her mother’s at one time. What unravels is Shakespearean both in its characterization and twists.

Finally, Dhoop Chaon, which wrapped recently after a crisp 15-episode run, charts the twin stories of a mother and daughter as they both, across different times, live through unhappy marriages. When Shandana has troubles in her marriage, she turns to her mother. A woman of today, Shandana is open to the idea of divorce. But her problems, she subsequently realises, are not a spot on what her mother suffered in the early years of her marriage to a man who was distant and uncaring. As with other shows, the focus is on memory and remembrance, with the present only a slim outcome of a rich, if troubled, past.

Social analysts have debated the causes of the poor quality of fiction programming on Indian TV. One argument blames it on the rapid modernisation of the Indian economy that has engendered a hankering for a certain lifestyle at the cost of programming that is less mercenary in its focus. 

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta famously articulated the Indian impulse to equate progress with conspicuous consumption in his 2000 work, Mistaken Modernity. Why do we, he asked, have islands of affluence where women are permitted to wear shorter skirts but must still observe patriarchal rituals like karva chauth. This mentality is reflected in soaps where women are dressed to the nines at all times but have no real authority or freedom.

Truth be told, Pakistan is not all that different from us. Women there must also battle the competing demands of tradition and self. The question is whether the media (especially fiction shows) should only hold a mirror to society, or should they also go beyond, showing the way forward? If the answer to the latter question is yes, Pakistani TV is miles ahead of our own.
(Vikram Johri is a Bangalore-based writer. He tweets at @VohariJikram.)
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